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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
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The PSNI controversies that have dogged Chief Constable Simon Byrne

Byrne last week vowed that he would not resign after the latest in a string of controversies during his time at the top of the force.

LAST UPDATE | Sep 4th 2023, 4:09 PM

PSNI CHIEF CONSTABLE Simon Byrne has resigned from his role, less than a week after telling reporters that this wasn’t an option.

On Thursday, Byrne attended a meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board that lasted for close to seven hours.

When he emerged from last week’s meeting, he told reporters who asked about his position that he would not be resigning.

The unprecedented meeting came after a High Court ruling that a decision to take action against two junior officers two years ago was unlawful.

However, Byrne tendered his resignation with immediate effect following an emergency meeting of the NI Policing Board this afternoon. 

Policing Board chair Deirdre Toner told a press conference that the last few weeks must have been “incredibly difficult” for Byrne.

“His tenure was subjected to intense scrutiny and I am sure that the last few weeks in particular have been incredibly difficult for him personally and professionally.”

Byrne had faced renewed calls to quit from unionist politicians last week following the High Court ruling.

It’s the latest in a series of controversies within the PSNI under Byrne’s tenure.

Disciplining of junior officers

Last Tuesday, a judge quashed the actions taken against two junior officers after making an arrest at a Troubles commemoration event in Belfast in 2021.

The incident happened on the Ormeau Road in February 2021 during a service marking the anniversary of the February 1992 Sean Graham bookmakers attack in which five people were murdered.

Covid-19 restrictions on public gatherings were in force when the annual wreath-laying ceremony took place. The two officers faced action after the arrest of Mark Sykes, a survivor of a loyalist gun attack.

Sykes was handcuffed and arrested in chaotic exchanges captured on social media. He was later released without charge.

Byrne apologised for the incident and confirmed disciplinary steps taken against the two recently recruited officers.

In the High Court last week, Mr Justice Scoffield said the decision to discipline the officers was made to allay any threat of Sinn Féin abandoning its support for policing in Northern Ireland.

Unionists have accused Byrne of taking unjustified action against the officers to placate republicans, while Sinn Féin has denied there was any threat to withdraw support for policing.

However, Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy last week reiterated the position of his party that at no point did it insinuate or suggest it would withdraw from policing arrangements.

At the time of the incident, Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said the “heavy-handed policing” of the event was “disgraceful”.

Following the emergency meeting yesterday, Byrne said: “The deputy chief constable and I spent several hours in discussion with the Northern Ireland Policing Board surrounding the events of February 5-6, 2021,” he said.

“I highlighted that, after carefully reviewing the full judgment, I sought further advice. After consideration, the question of an appeal is now live.

“Further public commentary around this matter is not appropriate at this stage.”

Asked if he retained the confidence of the Policing Board, Byrne said: “That is a matter for the Policing Board.”

When asked about his position on Thursday, he said: “I’m not resigning.”

Speaking today from Westminster, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said Byrne’s resignation was the “right thing to do following last week’s ruling by Mr Justice Schofield that the PSNI senior command unlawfully disciplined two of its own officers to appease Sinn Féin”.

Liam Kelly, chair of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, said last week’s High Court ruling was “damning” and “called into question his judgment, decision-making abilities and made his position untenable”.

Data breach

The PSNI was rocked after revelations of a “monumental” data breach last month, which saw details of around 10,000 police officers and staff published online.

Members of the force said they feared for their safety, due to targeting of police officers in the North by paramilitaries. Some, primarily Catholic, members of the force said they had never told family members they worked for the PSNI due to fears of ostracisation.

Byrne cut short a family holiday to return to Belfast for an emergency meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

It later emerged that dissident republicans were among those who accessed the data sparking concern among officers and staff for their safety.

Further data breaches emerged in the weeks after.

Byrne said he was “deeply sorry”, but said he had no plans to resign, adding the PSNI needed consistency and calm heads to be led through an “unprecedented crisis”.

Stolen devices

It emerged later in August that some 200 PSNI officers and staff were not informed for nearly a month that devices and documents containing data potentially affecting them had been stolen.

A police-issued laptop, radio and documents were stolen on 6 July from a car in Newtownabbey, which was understood to belong to a superintendent.

The PSNI’s Information Security Unit was informed on 27 July. Following investigations, the Information Commissioners’ Officer was informed on July 31, and officers and staff were informed on 4 August.

Covid-19 policing

In addition to the Troubles commemoration, the PSNI was criticised several times for its handling of mass gatherings while restrictions were in place.

There was controversy over the policing of the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey, which saw huge crowds gather despite coronavirus restrictions.

Organisers of Black Lives Matter protests in Belfast and Derry also raised concerns when fines were issued to attendees, comparing the policing of the event to others during the pandemic. Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson later found that concerns around the discriminatory police handling of Black Lives Matter protests were justified.

In response, Byrne said he was sorry that relations with those minority communities had been damaged and vowed to “put things right”.

Additional reporting by PA